Dum Spiro Spero

In my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, one of the protagonists, Ezra James, oftendandelion-wind references the universe when it comes to inspiration. Even the title of the book, which Ezra lifts from a President Obama speech, is more the result of serendipitous coincidence than meticulous plotting.

Like the story’s protagonist, I too am a big believer in the universe. This is the source from which creative magic flows. There’s a reason why so many artists shrug off compliments regarding their work: It feels like a scam to accept credit for something that is clearly ether-born. Sure, the writer provides the discipline by sitting in front of a computer for hours, as does the painter at the easel and the musician strumming the guitar. Sentence by brush stroke by chord, we plod along. Progress is minimal. But if we sit there long enough, lightning cracks, the sky opens, our eyes glaze over and the Bradburian effect kicks in. “…and when their souls grew warm, they were poets.” We can take credit if we want, but the truth is, in that moment, we are plugged into something greater. Something mystical. We are conduits. The universe is moving through us.

I came across the Latin phrase dum spiro spero in a Merriam-Webster dictionary a few years ago while searching for a cool tattoo. The meaning, while I breathe I hope, resonated with me. So much so that I wove it into the novel as a plot point regarding lost love. At least I thought that was the purpose.

Here’s where the universe comes in. It wasn’t until the book was finished and on the shelf that I learned that dum spiro spero is also the state motto of South Carolina. Blew me away.

I’ve never been to South Carolina, don’t know anyone in South Carolina, but like most Americans, I was heartbroken and outraged when Dylan Roof walked into the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and murdered those nine black parishioners. Pure evil. But what was also shocking was the reaction of the people of Charleston. There were no race riots, no rumors of retaliation, no violence. Just a candlelight vigil for the victims where people of all races mourned the loss of their neighbors. Even the survivors of this heartless, senseless, spineless execution said they were praying for the killer.

I’m honored that On the Shoulders of Giants, a novel that deals largely with the topic of race, contains the state motto of such beautiful people. Although it wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t coincidence either. As Ezra would say, it was pure universe.

Dum spiro spero.

Fixing a broken prison system

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Part Six – Look, I admit it. I’m about as technologically dumb as a person can be. My toddler nieces and nephews are far more computer savvy than I am. Since I’ve been in prison for 12 years, I could say that this situation is by force not by choice, but that wouldn’t be completely accurate. I chose to commit the crimes that landed me in an archaic and draconian correctional system which is stuck in a perpetual state of 1989 and can’t seem to find its way into the millennium. Cause and effect. Nobody’s fault but mine.

So I’m probably the wrong guy to tackle this issue. For me, writing about computers is akin to writing science fiction. Not my genre. However, I also may be the perfect guy to tackle this issue since my own digital ignorance is a key example of the problem. I’ll give it my best shot.

A few weeks ago I transferred from one prison to another and as I lugged my three mesh bags stuffed with over a decade’s worth of letters, pictures, books, and magazines on and off buses, through strip searches, metal detectors, and holding cages, I longed for something I’ve never seen before: A space-age gadget that existed only in TV commercials… I longed for a tablet.

Imagine, a modernized correctional system where every offender receives one of these amazing little gizmos on the first day of incarceration (with no ability to surf the internet, of course. Sadly, there are too many predators in prison for that). But still, a person could email and text approved friends and family instead of relying on an antiquated phone system that charges over $2 per call. One could also store pictures, subscribe to magazines, download books, take classes, learn to type, research case law, and more or less become a citizen of the 21st century. These are just a few of the benefits.

But if you don’t have a loved one in prison, why should you care? One reason is the education factor. Numerous studies have shown that an educated person is less likely to commit crimes than one who is uneducated. Lifers make up only a small percentage of the prison population. Most of us will rejoin society one day. The more educated we are, the more employable we become. Education breeds empathy which makes us less prone to steal your car or break into your home. This also makes us less prone to return to prison, which in turn lightens the burden on the taxpayer.

Emails could take the place of phone calls, or at least provide an alternative. Because of the Florida Department of Corrections’ stringent regulations limiting approved phone numbers to land lines and contract cell phones only, many prisoners have lost touch with loved ones. Emails could reestablish connection between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. The vast reaching upside of familial support cannot be overstated, nor can its healing properties be quantified.

Tablets would also make prisons safer and pose less of a security threat than the status quo. Things like dope, shanks, and cell phones can be concealed in excessive property, i.e. stacks of mail, legal work, and accumulated books. A tablet would be harder to hide. Also, there would be a digital trail of everything sent and received, this makes sense from a security standpoint.

At the institutional level, all grievances, requests, appeals and sign-ups could be filed electronically. Appointments with classification, dental, medical, and mental health departments could be done with notifications. This upgrade in infrastructure alone is a substantial step in the direction of the modern world as it would demand a rudimentary degree of computer literacy for the offender.

As with any complete overhaul, there are logistics to consider. Over a hundred thousand tablets, plus tech support, as well as transitioning from the current model of two mailroom employees poring over incoming and outgoing mail to some sort of centralized cyber security team would require money. But other prison systems have already made the move with great success. Why not Florida?

On every dormitory wall in every prison throughout the state is a motto mandated by the current secretary of the department of corrections: “Inspiring success by transforming one life at a time.” A noble vision. Modernizing the system would lay the framework to make this vision a reality.

Fixing a broken prison system

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Part Five – I have a friend who struggles with depression. She’s had a rough decade. In 2007 she was in a horrific car accident that killed her husband and left her with numerous broken bones, as well as two young children to raise alone. When a highly addictive painkiller finally ran out, heroin filled the gap and in 2012, she found herself in a women’s correctional facility serving three years.

As happens with many Americans struggling with depression, the doctor recommended Prozac and this, coupled with meditation and exercise, allowed her to begin to put her life back together. A pivotal part of her plan was work release, a program that allows nonviolent inmates to work in society during the final year of incarceration. With an 8- and 10-year-old at home already down one parent, she would be starting all over with nothing and needed to save some money. But in the end, she was denied entry into the work release program because she was prescribed a mood stabilizing drug which raised her psych level within the prison system. Once she became aware of this, she attempted to refuse her medication, but it was too late. So a year later, she was released from a maximum security prison with nothing but a Greyhound bus ticket and a $50 check. So long, farewell, we’ll leave a light on for you.

Question: How many of your co-workers are on Zoloft, Celexa, or Prozac? I would guess that a substantial chunk of the American workforce is on some type of SSRI or MAO inhibitor.

I’m sure the Florida Department of Corrections’ intentions are well meaning. Nobody wants a bunch of Thorazine-soaked, shuffling, criminal psych patients drooling over the deep fryer at the local KFC. But there’s an obvious difference between a violent offender on anti-psychotic meds and a single mother struggling with depression.

This lazy, one-size-fits-all policy is a contributor to the recidivism cycle and only hurts the same society it is trying to protect. In addition to the beatings and gassings that have been showing up in the news over the last few years, this is yet another example of the department’s ineptitude regarding the mentally ill population. A complete overhaul is in order.

By the way, the girl? She’s kicking ass out there, despite the odds.

Fixing a broken prison system

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Part Four – I’m not sure who was behind the flyer. Some prisoners’ rights advocacy group, maybe. I saw it only once back in June when it was passed around my dorm. It stated that on Friday, September 9, there was going to be a peaceful sit-down by prisoners everywhere in protest of inhumane treatment. I didn’t take it very seriously. There is no unity in Florida prisons. We’re too divided by race, gangs, dope, and our own individual hardships to come together for anything.

There was zero chance of this happening, especially on any grand scale. But apparently the Florida D.O.C. saw it as a legitimate threat and formed a stratagem to quell the potential disturbance.

Their plan was brilliant in its simplicity. A week before the date of the proposed peaceful sit-down, an “enhanced menu” was posted on the chow hall door: sausage biscuits, cheese grits and hash browns for breakfast; BBQ chicken and mac & cheese for lunch; hot dogs, baked beans, and cake for dinner. All to be served on Friday, September 9.

A sit-down is exactly what it sounds like: you sit down. No work, no rec, no canteen, no chow hall. As I said before this had no chance of happening in the first place, but if there was any doubt, the “enhanced menu” sealed it. For tens of thousands of indigent prisoners, the promise of decent food and a full belly was too difficult to pass up.

If you’ve read Part Two of this series, you already know about Charlie Christ’s S.T.O.P. Act which mandates that every prisoner serve 85 percent of his or her sentence. I suppose the effectiveness of this War-On-Drugs-era law could be considered debatable depending on where one lines up across the political spectrum. Food is a different story.

Florida prisons are largely self-sustaining ecosystems where maintenance, groundskeeping, laundry, janitorial, and kitchen duties are all handled by inmates. Some of these require 8-hour shifts and 40-hour workweeks. And the work performed by prisoners is not restricted to duties inside the fence. Every work camp and road prison in the state has a D.O.T., public works, and forestry squad. These men and women provide free labor on Florida’s highways, parks, and government buildings. To not compensate the nation’s third largest incarcerated workforce with an equitable amount of gain time seems soviet – the federal system actually pays its inmates – but the bare minimum should be food. Food is energy.

I’m not sure which is more telling – that Florida inmates would sell their souls for a hot dog, or that prison officials know this and use it as a management tool.

 

The honeymoon is over

SONY DSCWas I an idiot for giving Trump the benefit of the doubt? This is a guy who with a straight face alleged that Ted Cruz was the Zodiac killer, alleged that Cruz’s father was behind the Kennedy assassination. Despite all reason he maintains that he would’ve won the popular vote were it not for the votes of three million illegals. He still refuses to release his tax returns – something for which former candidates like Romney and Clinton suffered political consequences but still did out of respect for tradition and the process. Why should any presidential candidate from this point on release their financial information? Trump is setting a dangerous precedent.

His pick to head the EPA has sued the EPA fourteen times. His pick to head the Department of Energy is on record saying he wants to eliminate the Department of Energy. His Labor pick is a fast food exec. He has openly disrespected women, the disabled, war heroes, civil rights icons, hard-working immigrants and peaceful people of faith everywhere. And then there’s the embarrassing bromance with puppet master Putin and the Russian hacking scandal which he cheerleaded in the run-up to the election. His coziness with the alt-right, his affinity for and reliance on fake news, his refusal to put his businesses in a blind trust, his unknown debt to foreign banks, his disrespect to our allies and friends that form NATO, his disrespect to his predecessor, his disrespect to the intelligence community, his disrespect to the media, his disrespect to the Constitution of the United States of America.

Look, I’m a prisoner, a convicted felon. I’m a big fan of the second chance and I’m conditioned to look on the bright side (without optimism and hope, I’d be suicidal). So I’ve tried to focus on the silver linings in the Trump Presidency – his commitment to bringing back jobs, his stated goal of “binding the wounds of division.” I’ve tried. But the honeymoon is over. Just too many warts and red flags to overlook.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that when he became president, Mr. Trump went from employer to employee. He now works for the American people. And the time may come when men and women of all parties, races, and religions must stand up and give his own famous words right back to him: “You’re fired!”

Fixing a broken prison system

An Inside Perspective

a0008-000053Part Three – I’m writing this post from my “house” which is really just a bunk surrounded by 84 other bunks in a cinder block warehouse. This is just half of one dorm. There are eight more dorms just like it here in the prison where I live, and eight more at the prison next door. And eight more in the prison down the road. There are three prisons in this county, and at least one in every county in Florida.

Everything I own in this world is stored in the footlocker beneath my bunk: A radio, oatmeal, peanuts, a bag of instant coffee, plus numerous books and letters from people who love me. I’m extremely fortunate in this respect. Others are not so lucky.

The only way a Florida prisoner can receive money is if someone sends it to him from the outside. This means that two-thirds of the men in my dorm are unable to buy a postage stamp or a stick of deodorant, much less a cheeseburger from the inmate canteen. Their diet is limited to the trays served daily in the chow hall, where portion sizes and food quality have diminished over the past 20 years due to budget cuts. Most supplement this with whatever they can hustle or steal.

Get the violins out, right? Who gives a damn about a bunch of hungry criminals? Especially those who have burned so many bridges that not a single soul on earth would send a $20 money order, or even accept a collect phone call. But there are collateral consequences to this. Namely, a volatile caste system of haves and have-nots, where men are sometimes stabbed over ramen noodle soup.

How did we arrive at these red line conditions?

Twenty-five years ago, each Florida prison had a business office that ran the canteens. Products were bought wholesale – many times from local vendors – then sold to inmates with money on their accounts. Profits went to the Inmate Welfare Fund and were used to buy basketballs, footballs, softball equipment, weights, movies, musical instruments. One particularly humane use of this fund was to give every inmate in the Florida D.O.C. $5 on Christmas morning. This was a huge deal for indigent prisoners in the early 90s. But it wouldn’t last.

The ensuing years saw the Inmate Welfare Fund disintegrate intermittently. The Christmas program was discontinued after 1993, Recreation Department budgets were axed in favor of donations, and canteens were first centralized, then outsourced to the lowest bidder: Keefe Corporation. Today an inmate can buy an MP3 player with thousands of songs, JVC headphones, Nike tennis shoes, chicken sandwiches, jalapeno pretzels, Irish Spring soap, IF he is fortunate enough to have someone on the outside sending money. For thousands of inmates in the Florida D.O.C. – many of them from impoverished backgrounds and serving life sentences – this is not the case.

The only way these men and women can ever hope to wear a decent pair of shoes or listen to a radio or eat canteen food is to rob, steal, exploit or extort. I’m not justifying the behavior of thugs, I’m merely pointing out the current state of affairs. I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines. Life is becoming increasingly dangerous in Florida’s understaffed prisons, for inmates as well as correctional officers.

There is an easy solution to make them safer at no cost to taxpayers.

For almost two decades, companies like Keefe and Trinity have made billions of dollars peddling their wares to prisoners at gouge-level prices. Part of their future contracts should be to give a small percentage back. The Florida D.O.C. could then set up a program where indigent inmates receive pay for their institutional jobs. Even a nickel per hour would be something. That’s forty cents a day, two dollars a week, eight dollars a month. Eight dollars equals a bag of coffee and a few soups. A couple months’ paychecks would be enough for a transistor radio, a huge incentive, a reason to behave, a little dignity and hope for men and women with nothing. Of course, any disciplinary report would forfeit that month’s pay, so it would be a management tool for officers as well.

This is not some liberal entitlement idea. It’s good business for companies to invest in the communities that are the lifeblood of their profits. For far too long, prison profiteers have reaped the benefits of selling their merchandise at exorbitant prices to people who have absolutely no leverage. It’s not like we can threaten to take our business elsewhere. The real customers of corporations like Keefe are not men and women behind bars but the family members in society who send us money. Investing in safe prisons is the very least these companies could do. A pay program for indigent inmates would be a good start.

A shining example

white-house-paintingBlame it on George Orwell. He once said that it’s impossible to enjoy the writings of someone with whom you take political issue. For this and other reasons, I decided to steer clear of politics in 2017. I even made it a New Year’s resolution. I consider my novels to be letters to the world and want these posts to read the same way. I thought this year I would include more humor, more story, more music. But like many Americans, I’m already backsliding on my resolutions, three weeks in.

For this I blame another George: Stephanopoulos. Last weekend I watched him stroll around the White House with President Obama for a final interview and as the outgoing Commander-in-Chief answered each question with the same poise and equanimity that have been the hallmarks of his tenure in the Oval Office, I knew I had one more political post to write.

I campaigned for President Obama in prison visitation parks in the deep south. I spent much of 2008 convincing mothers and fathers of lifers that the Supreme Court justices and lower appellate court judges that he would potentially appoint could one day mean freedom for their sons. Or at least provide hope. He did not disappoint. Eight years later he leaves the job as the biggest criminal justice reformer in the history of the White House.

He was also the most gifted orator. Certainly of my generation. Over and over I watched him run circles around his opponents in presidential debates (horses and bayonets, anyone?). He did it with humor too. Remember the press dinner in the lingering aftermath of the birther allegations? He had the band strike up “Born in the USA” and came out pumping his fist like Springsteen. His State of the Union speeches were honest and engaging. His presidential addresses, especially after tragedies such as Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the Dallas police murders conveyed hope and healing to a heartbroken nation.

But it wasn’t just words. It was action too. Despite being hamstrung for three-quarters of his time in office by a partisan Congress that needed him to fail, he still managed to tame a gluttonous Wall Street, rescue American icons Ford and Chevy from the brink of extinction, steer us out of an economic crisis that cost the world 40 percent of its wealth, and commute the disparitive sentences of hundreds of war-on-drugs prisoners.

Oh yeah, he also got Osama Bin Laden.

However, his legacy will not and should not be tied solely to this historic hit on America’s most notorious enemy. But rather to the kindness, tolerance, and humanity he displayed over the last eight years. Just how kind was he? Well, I wrote him a letter and he wrote me back. Think about that. Amid all the global tension, intelligence briefings, and thousands of voices clamoring to be heard, the leader of the free world took the time to respond to a prisoner.

Critics will point to the ACA as a failure. Maybe. Millions of Americans who are now insured would probably disagree. I have no voice in this debate. As a prisoner, my health care expenses are limited to the five-dollar copay I’m charged each time I visit the clinic. I do believe that no idea is born fully formed and eventually, some future administration, possibly the new one, will iron out the kinks in Obamacare, repackage it, and present it to the American people as a glowing success.

Critics will also point to race relations as a failure. On this I vehemently disagree. Because of President Obama, the issue of race is no longer the elephant in the room. It’s a hot button issue. A water cooler issue. And people from all walks of life are expressing their opinions. If there is ever to be a united America, it has to start with an open line of dialogue. His polarizing presence in the White House alone has nudged us into having these uncomfortable conversations.

But the main reason I admire our 44th president has nothing to do with diplomacy or policy or statecraft. During one of the darkest periods of my life, as I tried to claw my way out of the immense hole I had dug for myself, President Obama was a shining example of what leadership looks like, what self-mastery looks like, what manhood looks like.

I found this quote from Michelle Obama scrawled in the journal I used while writing my second novel, With Arms Unbound. It’s from the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. “Even in the toughest moments, when we’re all sweating it, when all hope seems lost, Barack never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise. He just keeps getting up and moving forward … with patience and wisdom and courage and grace.”

I hope that one day, when I leave the world of prison behind, my future wife will hold me in similar regard.

I know this election season has been vitriolic and divisive. Despite our new president’s numerous faux pas, head-scratcher cabinet appointments, and thin-skinned cringe-worthy tweets, I do not wish him failure. To wish him failure is to wish America failure. At minimum, I’m hoping jobs continue to grow under his stewardship. His entrepreneurial chops could well prove to be a huge asset for the country. But no matter how prolific Donald Trump’s triumphs, Barack Obama will be a hard act to follow.

Since this has to end somewhere, I’m thinking a good place would be where the journey began: on a Tuesday night in November 2008, Grant Park, Chicago. After an historic landslide victory over John McCain, a younger, less gray president-elect put the following question regarding change to the spirited crowd of thousands: “When are we going to realize that WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for?”

Eight years, three novels, and a couple of miracles later, I can point to that speech as a major turning point in my own journey. Thanks for the inspiration, Mr. President. I can’t speak for the rest of the nation, but in my little corner of captivity, you will be missed.